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7 Tips for Writing a Great Listicle

By: Robert Jellison — September 17, 2018

antique typewriter

People love listicles. You’ve almost certainly read a few yourself—and more likely, you’ve read dozens. In fact, you’re reading one now.

What is a Listicle?

A listicle is a piece of content, usually around the length of a blog post, that’s formatted as a list.

They are articles that are divided into a number of discrete sections, each with a numbered subheading, all presenting information on a shared topic. “Top (X) lists” are one very common type of listicle, but there are others.

martin luther 95 theses

Pictured above: the father of the listicle.

The listicle format was popularized by websites like BuzzFeed, but has since been adopted by serious publications as well. Thousands of list-formatted articles are published every month. At this point, listicles are one of the quintessential types of written digital content.

Why are they so popular? It boils down to this: listicles present information in a way that’s easy to digest.

Listicles Tell You What to Expect

Let’s pretend you stumble across an article titled “How to Eat Healthy.” That’s an incredibly broad title, and it doesn’t introduce the article very well.

That title makes the article sound like it will either be:

  • Long and intimidating: “Eating healthy” is a huge subject that it would take thousands of words to do justice to.
  • Superficial and useless: Since most web articles aren’t 10,000+ words long, it’s easy to get the sense that it might just summarize things that are more comprehensively detailed elsewhere—in other words, stuff everybody already knows.

Most likely, these impressions aren’t accurate. The article probably isn’t trying to address the entire subject of “healthy eating”; there’s something specific the author wants to tell you about it. But the title fails to communicate that.

stack of old books

Your title shouldn’t make your readers feel like they’re about to dive into a stack of books.

On the other hand, an article named “7 Tips for Eating Healthy” doesn’t sound as intimidating. You know what you’re getting with the article: seven pieces of concrete advice.

Listicles Break Information Apart Into Manageable Chunks

It’s difficult to absorb information when it’s presented as one big undifferentiated mass. People don’t work that way; when we have to learn about complex subjects, most of us break them down as much as possible and then tackle each piece one by one.

Ultimately, that’s what a listicle does. It distills the information it’s presenting down into a couple of key points and then elaborates on them. It’s a format that’s much more in-line with the way people think.

The Qualities of a Good Listicle

So how do you write a successful listicle?

To start with, pick a fresh and interesting topic. Going back a minute, “7 Tips for Eating Healthy” is still a pretty uninspired title. Volumes have been written on that subject, and the title doesn’t make it clear that the article offers anything new.

On the other hand, an article titled “7 Tips for Eating Healthy While Traveling” or “7 Unexpected Health Benefits of Drinking Oolong Tea” wouldn’t face as much competition.

When you write your article, follow all the usual advice about writing well. Avoid the passive voice, vary your sentence structure, use vivid language, and get rid of unnecessary words. Those are things you should be doing when you write any piece of content, of course.

Are there any other points you should bear in mind when writing a listicle? Read on for a couple of things you might not have considered yet.

1. Make Sure Your Article Belongs in a List Format

Before you get started, take a minute to think about whether your article makes sense as a listicle. We love listicles—this article probably makes that clear—but they’re not right for everything. Always ask yourself, “Can I break my article down into several meaningful discrete items?” Only write it as a listicle if the answer is a firm yes.

Narrative pieces shouldn’t generally be listicles. If you want to tell a story about pearl diving in Tahiti, should it be formatted as a list? The answer will usually be no—but not always. As you’re writing the post, you might discover that it would make a pretty great listicle called “10 Things That Surprised Me When I Went Pearl Diving in Tahiti.

2. Check That Your Title Matches Your List

Have you ever read an article where the title and list entries seemed to be written by different people?

You probably have. It’s a common mistake. But when it happens, it seems amateurish.

It goes without saying that your title should match your subject. But it’s more than that. If your article is called “5 Ways You Can Injure Yourself While Running“, then all of your list entries should in fact be ways you can injure yourself while running. For instance, item number one might be “Not Wearing Adequate Footwear.

Number one should not be “Remember to Wear Adequate Footwear.” You can see why, right? It’s good advice, but it’s not phrased correctly, as a way you can injure yourself—it’s presented as a tip. It would be a fine entry in an article called “5 Tips to Not Hurt Yourself While Running.” But with the title that you gave your article, it looks out of place.

headline mismatch example

This is good advice, but it’s not a “benefit.” Try not to do this!

How do mistakes like this happen? In some cases, it’s because the person who wrote the title really wasn’t the person who wrote the article. At other times, it’s because the article’s writer was distracted.

Don’t fall into this trap. A misleading title always looks bad, but accurate titles are especially important for listicles because they help you avoid the appearance of clickbait.

Although listicles are popular, they don’t have a perfect reputation. There are a lot of listicles out there with titles that mislead the reader, and you don’t want your article to be associated with them, especially if you’re trying to establish yourself as an authority and a source of high-quality content.

It isn’t hard to make sure that your title is accurate. Just pay attention and double check your article before you publish it.

With that said:

3. Give Your Article a Compelling Title That Hooks the Reader’s Attention

Lists are very shareable. If your article is going to be spread by being shared on people’s Facebook and Twitter feeds, you need to name it something that will grab people’s interest so they click through.

How do you write a good title? Many of the rules are the same as the rules for writing well. Use strong, declarative sentences, and if you have a choice between a longer and shorter word, consider going with the shorter one. It helps to not tell the reader everything about your article in your title. Headlines that do this are called “curiosity gap” headlines, and they’re proven to make people click more.

“Okay,” you’re saying. “Now you’ve confused me. I thought you just said I shouldn’t write clickbait.”

You shouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean you have to write a boring title.

The word “clickbait” is sometimes thrown around a little too freely. There’s nothing wrong with writing a title that makes people want to read your content. The art of writing attention-grabbing headlines has been around for a lot longer than the term “clickbait,” or devices that can click, for that matter.

old newspaper headlines

Attention-grabbing titles are nothing new.

What bothers people about clickbait titles isn’t that they’re interesting. It’s that often, they overpromise, employ cliches, or are overly vague.

Don’t Let Your Readers Down

You’ve almost certainly read titles with phrases like “You Won’t Believe This,” “Number 12 Will SHOCK YOU,” and the infamous “One Weird Trick.” Those phrases were probably fresh and novel at one point—after all, if they hadn’t drawn in readers, people wouldn’t have kept writing them—but at this point, they’re so ubiquitous that your readers will probably end up rolling their eyes at them.

It doesn’t help that titles like this habitually overpromise. Always ask yourself, will item number 12 really shock your readers? If not, don’t put that in the title.

Make Your Title Useful

There’s a stark difference between not giving the reader all the information about the article before they click it, and giving the reader next to no information at all.

curiosity gap washington post

This headline from The Washington Post is an example of the curiosity gap done right. It asks a question instead of answering one, playing on your curiosity, but it still tells you exactly what the article will be about in the headline.

Conversely, imagine an article titled, “These 18 Books Will Blow Your Mind.” That title gives you next to no information about what the article’s contents will be. What’s so special about these books? Are they unusual? Are they good or bad? What kind of books are they, even—fiction? Titles like this annoy many readers.

Highlight the Strength of Your Content

Your title is your chance to sell your article. Be a good salesman, not an unethical one. When you write it, ask yourself, what’s the most exciting way I can describe this article without misrepresenting it? 

4. Choose Items That Will Surprise Your Readers

One of the great things about the list format is how it pulls the reader forward. With numbered subheadings, there’s a concrete sense of progression as the reader moves through the article. They want to get to the next entry to see what it is.

Another great thing about listicles is their scannability. It’s very easy for a reader to skim a listicle if they’re short on time and to zero in on the most interesting entries.

Take advantage of that by making sure you have some entries that your reader will not expect.

This isn’t the same as making sure you have high-quality content, which of course you should always do. It’s about having unexpected content.

Let’s consider the Healthy Eating Tips article from above again. Imagine if the tips were things like, “Drink Plenty of Water,” and “Limit Your Intake of Empty Carbs.”

That’s all good stuff, and an exhaustively researched listicle talking about them would be a valuable resource. But those tips aren’t exactly groundbreaking. (“You mean I shouldn’t eat potato chips with every meal? You don’t say.”)

On the other hand, if one of your list headings is surprising, like “If You Eat Fatty Foods, Eat Them in the Morning,” that’s going to draw in the viewer’s eyes. Your readers will be intrigued—and potentially skeptical. “There’s no way that matters, right?” That’s not a bad reaction. That skepticism will get them reading, and once you do that, you’ve won the battle.

health benefits of strawberries

In this article, tips 7 and 8 aren’t particularly surprising. But you’re less likely to have read tips 2 and 3 before.

The hardest fight in content marketing is to get people to look at your website.

Once you’ve got them doing that, you can rely on the strength of your content to keep them there. Google will notice, boosting your rankings, and every second they spend on your page is a chance to convert them into customers. (If you’re not confident in your content, consider hiring some better writers.)

5. Make Your List Scannable

Great writing is important, of course, but don’t neglect your formatting.

Remember, one of the great things about listicles is how scannable they are. People have short attention spans at the best of times, and their attention spans are heavily influenced by the medium of what they’re reading.

Five pages of solid paragraphs, unbroken by any kind of subheading or picture, might be appropriate in a textbook. But in an article on your blog, it’s going to seem very out of place and be hard to read.

Listicles summarize their main points with a sentence or two each—the list entries—and then elaborate on them. A reader who’s short on time or not feeling particularly attentive can get maybe 50% of the value of the article just by scrolling through it for thirty seconds and reading the list items. If an entry jumps out at them as being particularly interesting, they can zero in on it and spend as much time reading it as they want.

new york times list article

We’ve written about this article before, but we do love it. Notice how the bold list entries draw the eye in and make the information easier to parse.

This is the great advantage of listicles, and you want to make it as easy for your readers to do as possible. That means formatting your listicle intelligently. It goes without saying that your list items need to pop out. They should be formatted as subheadings—preferrably H2 headings. This will make Google just as happy as your readers, as they’re likely to contain the keywords you want to rank for.

Keep your paragraphs relatively short. On blogs, nobody likes parsing massive chunks of text. Bold important words or even entire sentences. It helps break up the text and prevent eyestrain, and further helps your readers hone in on what they want to read. You’ll notice we do this on this blog, including in this very article. (We do try to take our own advice.)

It’s also a nice idea to strategically insert images into your post. Try to make them at least somewhat relevant to what you’re talking about. To make your list scannable, you should be able to at least approximate what the text will be from the images.

6. Pick the Right Number of Entries

You’ll find a lot of articles online that claim to tell you the optimum number of entries your list should have.

A lot of this advice is conflicting. It’s good to have odd numbers, especially primes—people like them, for some reason—but ten is also a strong number. Keep your list short and sweet, but remember that 29 is the perfect number.

Obviously you can’t follow all this advice.

It’s not all necessarily bunk. It is backed by a certain amount of data, and some of it just feels “right.” Doesn’t seven feel like a good number for a list?

But ultimately, advice like that should not be a major consideration for you. Write exactly the number of entries that you can provide high-quality, meaningful content for.

If you’re writing an article on “Overlooked Tourist Spots in Spain,” and you’ve come up with 12 of them, then you should write about 12 of them. If you leave one out, you’re giving somebody else a chance to write about it and rank for that keyword instead. On the other hand, if you force a mediocre entry because 13 is a prime number and you read that prime numbers draw in clicks, then you’re compromising the quality of your content. One of your entries will feel dull and forced.

Dull, uninspired content is death to SEO. Every second that your readers spend looking at a boring paragraph makes it more likely that they’ll click the back button and leave your page.

This is a listicle. It’s seven entries long. Why? When we brainstormed, we came up with seven things that we wanted to say. We didn’t pick it because it’s a prime number. This approach has worked pretty well for us, and we strongly recommend that you do things the same way.

SEO is important, but it’s possible to overthink it. As the people who actually design the search engine algorithms keep telling us over and over, the most important thing is to have high-quality content. Everything else comes second.

Is There Such a Thing as Too Long?

Not necessarily. If your list has more than 30 entries, you might want to consider breaking it up into two or more articles—but there have been plenty of successful listicles of that length or longer.

Just be careful to match the length of each entry to the length of the list. If your article is “3 Tips for Giving a Great Speech“, each tip should be pretty comprehensive. On the other hand, if it’s “33 Tips,” then spend no more than a paragraph on each one. Potentially spend just a sentence or two. If you want to go into any of them in more depth, write another article, and then link to it. (Internal links make Google happy, too.)

7. Write a Strong Ending

Presumably, you gave your listicle an intro instead of just opening with item number one.

If you didn’t, do that. Nobody likes to be tossed right into the middle of things with no lead-in.

Make sure you also give your list a good outro. It can be its own list entry, or it can be under its own subheading that’s not part of the list.

You don’t need to end your article the same way you would end an essay for school—”In conclusion …” The important thing is to provide a sense of closure to the article and make sure your readers aren’t left looking for a page two button. A few sentences will do it.

If you feel like it, you can also end with an image that subtly lets the reader know there’s nothing more to come.

thats-all-folks

Or sometimes not so subtly.

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